Supervision as Super∙Vision

When we problematize something, we make it a matter of thoughtful consideration. In so doing, we revitalize its meaning, significance, and practical relevance. Today, I problematize the practice of supervision, a role that we expect many to realize more frequently than they do.[1]  

A Simple Definition

Supervision is a developmental relationship characterized by an attentive attitude, an ethic of care, and active efforts to help others learn and grow personally and professionally. It may focus on practical task-oriented skills or on the so-called “softer” competencies that promote interpersonal effectiveness. And we may supervise adaptive development at the individual level or with groups and teams.   

A Clarification: Job titles ≠ roles

In any organization there is a social structure with roles of oversight. As an enterprise, it has a purpose, a mission, and stakeholders whose interests it serves, so there are expectations of fiduciary duty. To fulfill this duty and coordinate organizational performance, roles, job titles, and a governance hierarchy are created.  

Those in positions such as CEO, Vice President, Director, Manager, and Supervisor, are expected to exercise oversight, to coordinate the work of others in the service of the organization’s strategic aims and performance goals. We refer to people in these positions as leaders or members of management in the general sense of the word, i.e., they are to provide guidance to others. 

There are two specific kinds of guidance we expect of those in these positions: Management is the role of ensuring timely and efficient execution. Supervision is the role of enhancing the productive capacity of people to do their work – technical, tactical, and interpersonal.  

Managing

This role focuses primarily on the operational system of an enterprise, efficient execution of its purpose and goals. We have so-called “dashboards” that represent the status of key operating parameters. But there’s more to it than analyzing and reporting data. We also coordinate action and perform timely and adaptive problem solving to sustain performance.    

Management is aptly characterized as “keeping the trains running on time.” But the train tracks need to be maintained. And we must respond to new and different kinds and quantities of demand, and many other “backroom” functions. Having said that, if we were to characterize which gets the most attention in business today, managing would easily prevail over supervising.  

Because of this bias, I focus on the role of supervision. As we’ll see, the complexity of the supervision role is fundamentally different than the complexity of the management role. The former requires a person-orientation while the latter relies on a thing-orientation.  

Supervising

At the top of this article, I defined supervision as a relationship. And in the title, I broke the word down into two component root word. I did this because the practice of supervising others requires that see a supervisee as a person first. And we must come to know them to fully see the meaning of their actions.  

Persons are more than interchangeable functionaries. Unlike machines, they each have a subjective center the nucleus of their capacity to act as free and rational agents. And prior to the rational plan of action there are often less articulate intuitions, feelings, or concerns that shape attitude and action. 

Much of what differentiates us, indeed defines us, as persons are our value commitments, what we truly care about, what gives meaning to our lives. These and qualities of personality and interpersonal style play a role in differentiating the intuitive ore felt meaning that we discern in our field of action.  

To muddy the waters further, there are cultural and ethnic differences in how our value commitments are formed, and how they are expressed. Gender differences, too, play a role. To really see the person and appreciate his or her approach to action we must seek to understand these shaping influences. 

When we do this as supervisors, and when we reflect an appreciation who they are and how they function, they feel understood. And beyond that empathic connection, we are better positioned to help them by adapting our guidance to their individual differences while linking them to the firm’s mission. 

Super Vision

That’s what I consider the super quality of vision that enables effective supervision. And when it’s well done, it makes management of process and performance so much easier. Not only do we quicken the pace of learning, we’re able to more quickly identify and resolve issue.

Notes:

[1] For what it’s worth, the lack of adequate supervision, feedback and coaching from management has been a constant theme in McKinsey annual surveys on organizational effectiveness.

Being Lonely and Being Alone

Language... has created the word 'loneliness' to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word 'solitude' to express the glory of being alone. Paul Tillich

How is it possible to feel so lonely, to feel such a struggle in connecting with other people? Why is it that making these efforts feels so unnatural, so alien to a state of ease? Those questions may seem odd to many people for whom relating to others is experienced very differently, with eager excitement and joy. But for those with social anxiety, the experience of being with others produces an acute sense of jeopardy.   

As a psychologist, I can offer perspective on the genesis of this condition. Insecure attachment with care givers can lead to a life-long vulnerability to feelings of insecurity in the presence of others, at least many others. Among the insecure there are those who respond with an accommodating style that can be self-effacing, while others may adopt an avoidant style. And of course, there is temperament.  

Given such considerations, we usually arrive at a 50/50 attribution of cause; it’s the nature-nurture middle ground. It’s a separate matter to reflect upon the experiences of being alone versus being lonely. I believe that most of us do want and need some social-emotional intimacy. Therefore, I am somewhat skeptical of those who dismiss this basic human need by invoking the alone-loneliness distinction.  

When Being Alone is Loneliness

Pain. Unease. Watching with envy and longing. Chronic negative self-evaluation. Assertiveness and confidence issues. These are signals that we are not feeling free, well, worthy, and that we suffer a chronic sense of being relegated to living life in emotional isolation. Note that these characterizations typify the extreme end of the introvert-extrovert continuum, and most if not all of us make choices to settle. 

Perhaps we settle for a while before noticing that we are missing something, wanting fulfillment of affiliation or intimacy needs. And upon noticing some of us are able, sometimes with the support of a significant other or even in a new situation with new acquaintances, to venture forth. But for many these choices are difficult, especially insofar as the internal sense of being alien persists. 

That’s where psychotherapy becomes vitally important. Psyche, self, person, they are all references to that inner, subjective center of experience, the living I. For even as our outwardly facing identity as a Me evolves and “works” for us, it may work better (be more functional) in particular situations and for particular purposes, i.e., professional role, customer in a café, etc. Incongruencies between I an Me can arouse pain.  

Adaptive Development

Relational psychotherapy is informed by an understanding of how caring relationships shape our sense of identity, emotional security, and social confidence. A psychologist engages with the client as a certain kind of intimate other, as an expert and trusted guide to self-discovery. He or she helps you discover, examine, and, where necessary, helps you reshape influences that limit your growth as a person.  

The self is socially constructed in the beginning, first in the arms of our caregivers and in our family of origin. Then, as we move beyond the home, to school and community, broader forces affect us, some prompting learning and change, others reinforcing aspects of our self-identity, i.e., attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and feelings. Family plays an ongoing role of responding to our changes. 

And so, proceeds personal development into the workplace, in intimate adult relationships. At critical points along the way (inflection points), we receive “calls” to reflectively adapt to challenges that are new or overwhelming. Among the “calls” that we may recognize and respond to is the call to know and accept ourselves more completely, and to learn to reveal ourselves more authentically with others.  

As we do this, first in therapy, and then outside of therapy, we are able to overcome certain inhibitions to engaging authentically with others. With each advance in this direction, in therapy and then beyond, insecurities soften and sometimes melt away. Ways of being with others that prove satisfying develop. We find our most natural ways to be with others and further dimensions of self are born and mature.

A Tale of Tears: Manager as Ethnographer

What are tears? What produces them? What is their function? These questions may be answered in two ways. First, we could regard tears as physical/chemical phenomena. In this sense, the answer could be as straight forward as saying that tears are made up of water, mineral salts, antibodies, and lysozyme. They may be produced by irritation or emotions, and they serve a protective function for the eye. 

The second way of answering these questions involves an interpretive or “thick” description[1] of what tears mean. They’re an expressive act. They can express intense, situation-specific emotions: intense joy at the birth of a child; great sadness at the death of one’s spouse; or feelings of total exhaustion and relief after surviving a harrowing escape from the destructive force of a tornado. This meaning is felt.  

The chemical composition of tears represents “thin” description and reductionistic meaning. It’s merely factual description of thing-like features. A thin description might treat the rapid movement of the eye lid as a blink. But if we perceive mischievous intent along with this eye movement, we might interpret it as a conspiratorial wink, i.e., thick description embedded in a complex context of cultural meaning.  

Beyond Tears

The insights from our discussion of tears and thick and thin meaning can apply elsewhere to interpersonal and organizational contexts. Consider how we can be surprised at the strong reactions of others to situations we view matter-of-factly as rather benign. A simple example may be how the thin factual data on an accounts receivable report don’t tell the full story of management’s concerns about a critical business issue.  

An account executive has a large customer whose receivables are now 90 days past due, but she says there are major new sales opportunities with this customer. Her boss and the general manager of the division express intense frustration and demand action on the receivables. The thick meaning of this issue for the two parties is quite different. Interpretations differ, consequential meaning is missed.  

Is management right, or is the account executive seeing something they’re missing that could solve management’s problem? Only more information and insight will answer that question. But even that may not be sufficient to resolve the disconnect in their perceptions and actions. Dialogue that aims at creating mutual understanding is needed, dialogue that ends with more than coercive action.  

Engagement is the Answer

In personal relationships, dignity and respect for the person are to be expected. Intimacy, trust, and love depend upon this recognition of one another’s personhood. But it’s really not altogether different at work when you think about it. When we take an interest in others and value their experience and what they have to say, they feel more engaged. As a result, we’re more likely to operate from shared value commitments.  

Thin description and reductionistic meaning are useful and often sufficient as a means of informing one another of key measures of performance. Indeed, the thicker meaning and significance of these data must be assumed to be implicitly understood much of the time. But this assumption becomes riskier as we let the time grow between the deeper, alignment-checking conversations that produce thick meaning.

Clifford Geertz introduced these terms (thick and thin description) to characterize what we must do in order to adequately analyze and understand a culture (i.e., ethnography). Well, leaders and executives must not only understand their culture, they are responsible for building a healthy, adaptive culture. So perhaps they need to practice a bit of ethnography too.

Notes:

[1] American anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, describes the use of thick description in Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture (1973).

Assertiveness as Transparency

One of the more familiar ways of characterizing assertiveness is by differentiating it from aggressiveness and passivity (table below). Assertiveness is also described in terms of its proper uses in self-advocacy and the resolution of conflict. In those discussions of assertiveness, we hear about how inhibitions or defensiveness can interfere with assertive styles of expression. That’s all important and valuable information. But I’ll forgo those treatments of the subject in favor of painting a positive picture of how the proper expression of emotions, values, and authenticity can generate a kind of transparency essential to assertiveness. It’s an approach that makes the task of assertive communications easier, more natural.  

Comm Styles.jpg

Emotions

Quite simply, the most direct path to uninhibited assertion of our true experience is the free expression of our feelings. Because we first know what is important – what we are attracted to, offended by, and care most about – through our feelings. They’re intuitive feelings, felt ways of knowing, less abstract, more immediate. The meaning of this experience arises and registers in a context.  

It’s not yet articulate conceptual knowledge. Still, it’s potential to become such can be recognized by others. For they too have had such feelings that compel their attention and demand to be examined. But it’s incumbent upon us to articulate the meaning of this intuitively felt experience if we are to share it and make it known to others. That, of course, is the function of dialogue, to coax expression of intuitive knowledge.  

Of course, some situations are more consequential than others, so when is it most critical to express our felt sense of things? It’s when we feel that something important is at stake. It’s when we feel the presence of a value. And that takes us to the next step toward asserting felt meaning.   

Values

I define values for our present purposes quite simply and by reference to the Oxford Dictionary: In singular form value means, “The regard that something is held to deserve; the importance, worth, or usefulness of something;” and in plural usage, values signify values, “principles or standards of behavior one's judgement of what is important in life.”  

Recent philosophical treatment of values,[i] in this sense, suggests that people (not things) are the bearers of value through our beliefs and actions. Our values are historically shaped by culture and experience, but some values, like the “sacredness of the person,” dignity, and basic human rights seem universal in their claims upon us, even as we enact them differently across cultures.   

Reflectively clarifying the values that underlie our feelings, sometimes first individually, but also together in dialogue helps us understand the “why” and power of our “strong evaluations,”[ii], those that arouse our emotions. Often the words to express our feelings and values come slowly – it requires patience. 

Authenticity

Revealing our experience, even as we’re seeking to understand what it’s telling us (it’s meaning) takes courage. For in the process of disclosing our experience more freely, we reveal that we do not have all the answers, or the justifications and explanations, for feeling as we do. Nevertheless, we are able to trust that by attempting to express the meaning of our experience – the what and why of it – we are being real. 

Of course, we’re more likely to take this risk when we are interested in sharing our experience to advance dialogue and foster mutual understanding. And if that is reciprocated in the response of others, they will be seeking to understand, not through argument or challenge, but initially by helping coax forth the words to adequately express our experience. So, we initiate this approach to assertiveness with faith. 

It’s not a religious faith per se. Rather, it’s a belief that more often than not timely sharing and openness of this kind will be seen as the courage to be vulnerable in the service of some greater good. And when that intention is seen, it tends to soften hearts and open minds. 

Summary

The courage to pursue this transparent style of expression makes more timely communication possible. And it does not compromise our freedom to arrive at a strategic position or present a rational argument at some point. But by not rushing to a position, and by sharing our impressions and experience in a more spontaneous way, it helps separate meaning-seeking from decision-making.   

When our meaning-seeking actions are shared it opens rather than closes our access to insights and ideas. If we are confident enough to share these “raw” data freely, we’ll usually be rewarded with a better ability to assert a well-considered position when it’s time for arguments and decision-making. As we practice this approach, we become less guarded and learn to speak more directly. 

In some political negotiations or business negotiations “clever” and covert strategies may seem attractive. But if the assertiveness you seek concerns how to work well together in an ongoing effort and in ongoing relationships of collaboration, “clever” can often inspire mistrust and backfire.

Notes

[i] See Hans Joas, The Genesis of Values (2000): University of Chicago Press. Also by Joas, The Sacredness of the Person (2013): Georgetown University Press.

[ii] See Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (1989): Cambridge University Press. Also by Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity (1991): Harvard University Press.

You Never Listen!

Okay, true enough, this complaint is perhaps more commonly heard between partners or in family life than at work from a co-worker. But this is a prime example of how some interpersonal practices have valuable cross-cutting relevance to relationships in both parts of life. So, why pass up the opportunity to hone skills at home that will also serve you well in your career? 

The Core Issue: Causing Others to Feel Heard

If you are getting this feedback (that you never listen), you are probably missing the mark, or you’ve missed the mark enough in the past that others have come to assume it’s a challenge to truly get your undivided attention. The problem, then, is that even if you decide to begin paying more attention when others talk about things that are important to them, they may not notice, they may not notice it. They may just repeat the refrain, “You never listen!” And when you hear that, you may be thinking, “Yes I am. That’s unfair!” 

The Challenge: Disconfirming the Other’s Working Hypothesis

Don’t get mad, get smart! You have both created this pattern of behavior – it does take two to tango. So, now you must engage your partner (or your co-workers) in ways that disconfirm their operating beliefs or working hypotheses. If they are covertly (unconsciously) holding this belief about what it’s like to communicate with you, it’s your job to undo that belief system. How? By weakening its credibility, by acting in ways that defy that belief. 

A Simple 3-Step Solution: Let Them Know Things are Different

Example: Your partner (or colleague) engages you in conversation. You notice an earnest intensity, perhaps growing tension. You hypothesize: “I think she believes I am not listening, not fully hearing her, not fully understanding her.”  You could say, “Hey, just want you to know that I‘m listening.” But that is saying, not doing. And as we all know, walking the walk beats talking the talk every time. So, try this simple 3-step strategy: 

1.       I can see this is important to you.

2.       I want to make sure I am hearing you, your concerns (or point of view).

3.       So, lets slow this down a bit. Say a bit more about what you’re thinking and feeling

It’s Not Just the Verbal: How You Say It Matters

Eye contact, tone of voice, pace of speech – slow your own speech even as you suggest slowing down the conversation. Your total message is one of focus, care, attentiveness, patience, and deference. Yes, deference. It’s a moment of respect toward others in conversation. And then, the active elements of listening – allowing the other an unrushed opportunity to finish their thoughts, asking clarifying question (different from asking others to justify themselves), and then summarizing or at least reflecting the meaning and feelings you are hearing along the way. 

Isn’t that Just a Way of Being “Nice” (or Phony)?

It could be if your goal is simply to placate the other. But if we also hypothesize that effective listening can produce informed and considered judgment, and that it usually results in wiser, more effective action than shooting from the hip on important matters, then we should give this practice time to prove itself. We should be learning how to use this practice to greatest effect. We should notice how it affects the ease and quality of engagement with others, if it makes conversation and collaboration more effective. 

Recommendation: The Proof is in the Pudding

Try it for a week. Use the 3-step strategy. Learn from your practice. Remember what John Dewey the philosopher of education taught us: “You don’t learn from experience, but from your reflection upon experience.” Notice how it makes you feel: more competent, less defensive, more patient, and more prudent? It’s a skill, but like any practiced and thoughtful change in our behavior, it affects our attitude, and it affects the way others experience our presence and impact. See how it works for you!